Osama bin Laden's former bodyguard Abu Jandal, as seen in Laura Poitras' 'The Oath'

Osama bin Laden’s former bodyguard Abu Jandal,
as seen in Laura Poitras’ The Oath

The most subtle film of the year!

The most complex film in a generation!

These are not exactly the slogans that help sell a movie. When you attribute words like “subtle” and “complex” to a film, it starts sounding like spinach. That’s the old saw, that documentaries are like veggies. They don’t taste good but are good for you. And yet, the doc world has changed considerably over the past 20 years, and you can now look at the list of the highest-grossing documentaries and see that it has many films about serious issues that are nearly as easy to swallow as Cheetos.

And all the power to the filmmakers behind those popular docs–whether it’s Michael Moore, who has a unique ability to bring bombast and humor to his left-wing spin on things, or Davis Guggenheim’s mainstream filmmaking, that can make global warming (An Inconvenient Truth) or failing schools (Waiting for Superman) engaging without being alienating. And directors like Alex Gibney and Charles Ferguson are at the top of my list of filmmakers who can make spinach taste fantastic.

But what their best films do is simplify difficult-to-swallow concepts. What I want to do here is to take a moment to applaud a great documentary that avoids simplification and instead embraces complexity in a way that lets difficult concepts hang in the air. I’m talking about Laura Poitras’ The Oath, the 2010 film that aired on POV last year, and will be shown again this August. I bring it up now for two reasons. First, because it was screened last week, as a part of the Brooklyn Museum Thursday screening series of POV documentaries. Second, because world events have changed that might impact how we look at the film.

I cannot think of another film that is so easy to watch because of its expert filmmaking (strong narrative, strong characters, strong cinematography) and is also so… wait for it… yes, so subtle and complex. There isn’t a dull moment in this portrayal of brothers-in-law Abu Jandal, a former bodyguard to Osama bin Laden, and Salim Hamdan, a former driver to bin Laden. Both men end up in very different places. Jandal is a charismatic taxi driver in Yemen, while Hamdan is imprisoned in Guantánamo Bay.

Poitras’ portrayal of Jandal is phenomenal. She shows all of his contradictions, all of the humanity of a man who’s at the center of world events, without reducing him. While other great documentaries use gimmicks (The Corporation, Super Size Me) to portray complicated social issues, The Oath, is a portrayal of U.S. foreign policy towards global terrorism through the portraits of these two men. In contrast to films that wow the viewers (see an Errol Morris film or Jason Kohn’s underappreciated Manda Bala), The Oath has a power that sneaks up on you. By the end of the film, I felt like I had a 360-degree view of Jandal.

After the screening at the Brooklyn Museum, producer Jonathan Oppenheim, who was there for the Q&A, described it as “a complex portrait of a complex person. I think there’s a value to understand the enemy as a human being.” I couldn’t agree more. Even more telling, though, was how he answered my query about whether the killing of Osama bin Laden changed his perception of his subject.

He smiled and took a few moments to answer. “I need some distance from it,” he said. “I think in six months, I may be able to answer your question.”

See? He was comfortable not delivering the easy answer. This is a filmmaker who doesn’t turn complexity into a sound bite.

POV will be rebroadcasting The Oath on PBS, Tuesday, August 16, 2011. Check your local listings.

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He is a former Premiere magazine senior editor, who graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom's freelance work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter and other publications. He has written several Kindle Singles, including the bestselling Kindle Singles Interview: Ken Burns. Tom's current list of favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi by Godfrey Reggio; 2. Hoop Dreams by Steve James; 3.Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley; 4.Crumb by Terry Zwigoff; 5. Montage of Heck by Brett Morgen